First year of NSHS Senior Projects helps students land internships, build networks

First year of NSHS Senior Projects helps students land internships, build networks

North Smithfield High School students stand with retired American figure skater Michelle Kwan, center, a guest judge at senior project presentation day. From left are Ben DeGrange, Stefani Gomes, Kwan, Atom Brotka and Lisa Kakazu. (Valley Breeze photo by Sandy Seoane)

NORTH SMITHFIELD - A new graduation requirement in 2014 pushed this year's North Smithfield High School senior class to build relationships with members of the community that for many will last long after they receive their diplomas next month.

The students were asked to focus on a single topic, choose a mentor with whom to perform field work outside of school, complete a six-to-eight-page research paper, keep a journal of the experience, and finally create a portfolio pulling all of their work together.

"Our seniors have worked extremely hard all year on individual self-directed projects," said Karen Ryan, who served as co-coordinator of the effort, along with fellow teacher Lindsay Aromin.

The senior projects took the place of the school's previous portfolio system, where students would keep a binder of work they did throughout the year.

"We switched to this to give the students more of an opportunity to stretch themselves," said Aromin. "They can choose any topic. Nothing is off limits."

The idea resulted in presentations on topics ranging from civics education to tattoo artistry and Thai fruit carving.

"We really stressed to them that we wanted them to pick something that they're passionate about," said Ryan.

On Thursday, May 15, 100-plus students presented their final work before judges that included more than 60 members of the community alongside faculty from the high school and middle school. The 10- to 15- minute presentations provided an opportunity for the students to talk about their experiences often using pictures, videos and other props. The judges were members of the North Smithfield School Committee and Town Council, professors from local universities, doctors, parents, and even a few local celebrity judges, including retired figure skater Michelle Kwan and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline.

"It was a great way for us to bridge the gap between the school and the community," said Ryan. "This way our kids are getting out there and forging relationships."

"We've had some amazing alliances formed between students and mentors," added Aromin.

Those alliances include a partnership between one high school senior and state education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist that resulted in a summer internship with the Rhode Island Department of Education.

"She applied against college kids and she got the job," Aromin said of the North Smithfield High School student.

Another student chose the topic of rare coins and is now writing a research article that is going to be published in a journal with both his and his mentor's name on it.

Mentors were asked to write a letter of recommendation for the students to use for future job and scholarship applications.

"I think in the end it's made them more well rounded people as they go off to college or to a job, that they have something that they have ownership of," said Aromin. "The kids are really proud of themselves today as they're presenting."

Student Alyssa Deslauriers expanded on an idea started last year by two Portsmouth High School seniors and organized a "Unity Ball," a huge prom for students involved in Unified Sports from across the state. The event, which was held at the high school, featured a carnival theme.

Senior Ben DeGrange chose a mentor from Hasbro and spent his year learning about development and manufacturing of infant toys.

Sefani Gomes got scuba certified, and dove off the coast of Florida.

Angela Pasquariello partnered with ZekeStringer Jewelry in Johnston to create a specially designed charity bracelet to benefit the local Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Senior Atom Brotka worked with a tattoo artist, while Lisa Kakazu mastered the dynamics of a long board - a large skateboard designed for traveling. Members of North Smithfield Police and Fire departments took on proteg?©s as did members of the North Smithfield Athletic Association. One student started, and will continue after the student's graduation June 11, to work with her mentor to become Reiki certified.

"It's an opportunity to try something out that they might never try otherwise," said Aromin. "What's good is the kids picked a topic and decided what they love or in some cases what they don't love."

Community members interested in serving as mentors for future senior projects are asked to email Ryan and Aromin at